MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Deanna Jones says she might like to devote her legal career to representing people with disabilities. But it appears she’ll have to win her own fight first.
The 44-year-old Vermont Law School student, who is blind, is suing the National Conference of Bar Examiners and the Act Inc. testing company, saying they aren’t providing the accommodations she needs in order to take the legal ethics exam all lawyers must take before they practice in Vermont and most other states.
Those accommodations — two pieces of computer software that help the visually impaired read — enable Jones to work at her best and have been key to the high B average she’s maintained as a law student, she said.
Trouble is, the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination is still administered as a pencil-and-paper exam: no computers, so no computer software allowed.
“It should be administered in a way that ensures that a person’s abilities are being tested, not a person’s disabilities,” Jones said in an interview Tuesday from her home in Middlesex.
Her lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Burlington, put it this way: “Unless Ms. Jones takes the MPRE in an electronic format with Kurzweil 3000 and ZoomText screen access software, her results will not accurately reflect what the examination purports to measure, but will instead reflect her impaired sensory and processing skills.”
The National Conference of Bar Examiners, based in Madison, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Spokesman Scott Gomer of ACT said his company would not comment about a pending lawsuit, but provided a web link to a list of accommodations that are provided to people with disabilities, including the blind. Those include tests given in Braille, large print or in audio formats.
Jones maintains that some of those accommodations might help her pass the test but won’t help her do her best.
“Whether I can pass with other accommodations is not the question,” she said. Any person taking such a test would want a chance to do his or her best. “Why should a disabled person be asked to do any less on an exam?” she asked.
Dan Goldstein, Jones’ lawyer, said he had handled several other cases during his quarter century as lawyer for the National Federation of the Blind, which is helping Jones with her case. He said the group had won two similar cases in California, lost one in Maryland and that one is pending in the District of Columbia.
The suit maintains the National Conference of Bar Examiners and ACT are engaged in an “ongoing and continuous violation” of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the 1990 law aimed at ending discrimination against people with disabilities. It asks for a preliminary injunction, which would resolve the matter in Jones’ favor in time for her to take the exam on Aug. 5, when it’s next offered.
Randy Wagoner, a New Hampshire-based consultant who helps businesses and others comply with the ADA, said he encourages his clients to see whether computer technology can solve access problems for the disabled, adding that technology has helped the deaf make big strides.
“I wouldn’t encourage anyone to say it’s a paper and pencil test and always has been and therefore we can’t accommodate you,” he said.